September 12, 2018

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press
Betty Spieth, 92, and her late husband Charlie had this Conch Key home built for them. Betty did not recognize the cottage, now elevated, when she watched a video tour of the small Middle Keys island. Betty is looking forward to an October visit.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press Betty Spieth, 92, and her late husband Charlie had this Conch Key home built for them. Betty did not recognize the cottage, now elevated, when she watched a video tour of the small Middle Keys island. Betty is looking forward to an October visit.

CONCH KEY — Names penned on a wall are drawing Betty Spieth back to Conch Key, decades after she last walked the narrow streets of the small island.

“It’s kind of something on my bucket list,” Spieth, 92, of Momence, Ill., said last week, recounting memories from a Conch Avenue cottage built in 1950.

In early October, Spieth and a contingent of extended family members plan to reach Conch Key, where she will visit with current owners of the winter home she shared with her late husband Charlie, an avid fisherman, for 10 years.

“We bought the empty lot in 1950 for $1,000 and had it built that summer,” Spieth said. “It was a little cottage thing. I got no input on that at all. But it was fine, a place to hang our hats. It had a wooden dock-like porch and a walkway to the boat. At high tide, the water came under the house.”

The Spieths owned and operated Charlie’s Barbecue Restaurant in Illinois.

“We made our own barbecue sauce,” Betty said, “because then there was no commercial barbecue sauce.”

Winters were for visiting the Keys and fishing.

“That started with sportfishing and outriggers, but really it wasn’t exciting enough,” she said. “Then we met Bob Pate, who trolled commercially with handlines, mostly for kingfish and whatever else he could find. That sounded a bit exciting.”

The Spieths joined in, using handlines to reel in yellowtail snapper and other food fish.

“I didn’t like night fishing because of the sharks,” Betty said. “We had a series of boats, the last one a 34-foot Cris Craft we brought down the Intracoastal Waterway from North Carolina.

“We enjoyed the atmosphere, and people on Conch Key were great,” she said. “You had to drive into Marathon to get your mail or find a telephone.

“Every year we improved the property, and planted palm trees and other things. It was all sand, and people on Conch Key said nothing would grow. Charlie brought in black dirt and did a lot of landscaping. Eventually, we had real grass, plants galore and palm trees. It was quite nice.”

Then in 1960 came Hurricane Donna. The Spieths were on a golf course in Illinois when they learned of the Category 4 storm that wreaked havoc on the Middle Keys.

“The next day, we flew to Miami,” she said. “There were so many bridges out, we got on a boat with 13 other people and traveled through the night. We went ashore where there was still a road, and the Navy took us to Conch Key.”

Their little waterfront cottage had survived “high and dry,” although debris was scattered around the island, Betty said.

“There was no [fresh] water or electricity, and it was hot. Our house was pretty efficient and had a propane stove and tanks, so we made breakfast for about 10 National Guard guys and helped them get their kitchen set up. The Navy flew in big containers of water. We did all right.”

The Spieths stayed for about two weeks, making repairs and helping others. Charlie was discouraged by the loss of his landscaping work.

Later that winter, in the relatively new Key Colony Beach, developer Phil Sadowski hosted a convention of Airstream trailer owners. Charlie liked what he saw.

The Spieths’ Conch Key house went up for sale and sold within weeks. The couple later purchased the first of their five Airstreams.

“We hit the road and became gypsies for the next 28 years,” Betty said. “We did a lot of fishing, mostly in Canada.”

They last saw the Conch Key home in 1978 while traveling with their Airstream.

About five years ago, Betty “brought up Conch Key on the computer, out of curiosity,” and watched a video tour of the island.

“It didn’t take long, there are really only two streets,” she said, “but it was almost like being there.”

Spieth did not recognize her home, which had since been elevated and decorated with artwork by Joanie Trimble and Denise Perry, owners of 95 North Conch Ave. since 1991.

Betty sent a letter to the house address, not knowing who lived there.

“We’ve become good friends since,” Trimble chuckled. “I told her I’ve been trying to get her name off our wall for decades.”

The Spieths had welcomed many friends escaping the northern winter.

“We had so many houseguests, we put hooks on the wall so everybody would know to use their own towel,” Betty said. “I must have written ‘Betty’ and ‘Chas’ in laundry marker because our names are still there.”

Now Perry and Trimble have arranged a visit to the island for Betty and her family in the second week of October, and look forward to hosting her in her former home.

“They really love the house,” Betty said. “I’ll take my family to see all the water, and we’ll get a picture at the Southernmost Point in Key West. This might be my last hurrah. When I lived there, I was age 24 to 36, full of vim and vigor. Now I’m going on 93. Still, I might catch a fish.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com